“I feel like I understand you better now, Hudson.” She waited until I’d met her eyes with a questioning brow raise. “Why you play those games. Why you played that game with me.”
My heart stilled for a beat. I had to have misunderstood her allusion. I clarified. “What game?”
She let out an exasperated sigh, throwing her head back onto her pillow. “Let’s not do that right now, Hudson. Please? Be honest with me for a minute.”
Maybe it was the circumstances surrounding us or the lingering melancholy. Or perhaps the darkness of the room. Or the lack of sleep. Or finally a chance to speak with someone who was willing to hear. More likely it was the combination of all of the above that allowed me to step onto sacred ground and bare my secrets.
In a steady low voice, I let down the first wall. “They aren’t games.”
“What are they then?” She matched the tone and timbre of my voice, as though she understood as well as I did that this moment was unusual. That this conversation was unique.
“They’re experiments.” I trained my eyes on the steady blip of her heart monitor. “I don’t…understand…people.” Blip. Blip. “What makes them feel. I experiment to understand.” Blip.
“You don’t feel things?” Blip. Her heart rate didn’t alter.
Blip. “I don’t think I do. Not the way most people do.” Blip.
“That explains a lot.”
I met her stare. “Does it?”
“Yeah. It does.” She wasn’t accusatory. Simply matter-of-fact. We were alike, in a way. She understood things about people. She understood things about me, at the very least. “You’ve done it with more than just me then?”
I nodded once slowly.
“Have you learned anything?”
“I’ve learned a lot.”
“But you still don’t feel things?” She was curious but accepting.
“I don’t.” I gripped the arms of the chair and let them go again. “I don’t think that’s something that will ever change. It’s not why I do it. If anything, the more I experiment, the less I feel. Except with you. You…I don’t know.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to share. I just didn’t have the words. “You’re too much like family, I think. So I have…I did feel…something.”
“You don’t know what, though?”
“No.” I’d tried to figure it out so many times. “Obligation, maybe. Responsibility.”
She fiddled with the edge of her bedsheet but kept her focus on me. “But with the others, you didn’t feel anything?”
She let go of the sheet, turned and propped her head up on one hand. “Do you ever feel anything else?”
God, we were actually doing this, then? Examining all the pieces, letting all the walls down. Might as well get comfortable. I crossed an ankle over my jean-clad knee. “Not really. Anger sometimes. Disgust.”
“You’re never happy?”
“I’m often content.” I didn’t mention that the only excitement I felt revolved around the manipulation of others. I was stripping myself in front of her, but I didn’t need to be vulgar.
“What about sorrow?”
“It’s more like disappointment.” I cleared my throat. This was the closest to sympathy she’d get from me. “Right now, I’m disappointed for you.”
Though, there had been a moment—the moment that I’d learned Celia’s baby was dead—and the disappointment had been something else. Something more intense, more intolerable. It seemed to start in the center of me, the sensation so strong it sounded in my ears. Soon it reverberated in my bones, in my skin, until every part of me had…ached.
But all it took was a straightening of my spine and a decision to not feel it anymore. And with a whoosh, it was silent. Gone. I was hardened.
It had been a unique incident. One I’d never experienced. Perhaps it warranted a relabeling for Celia’s benefit. “Very disappointed for you.”
She bit her lip as if she were fighting a fresh set of tears. “What about guilt? Or compassion? Or love?”
I shook my head.
“You don’t love your mother? Or Mirabelle?”
“That’s more complicated.” It was difficult to explain my lack of emotion to someone else when I barely understood it myself. “I have a fondness for them. I feel an affinity toward them. But that’s all.”
She took in a ragged breath, and I could only assume this revelation disturbed her.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I added, “they do mean something to me. But it hardly measures the depths that I believe others feel for people they care for.”
“Does that bother you?”
“It intrigues me. Bother me? Not really.” I was grateful for the semi-dark room. It made the honest conversation less intense. “It actually makes me strong, I think. No one has the power to hurt me.”
This idea had itched at me for a while, but had never fully formed. Now that I’d said it out loud, I sat back in the chair and soaked in the revelation. This incident had actually been the best test of the notion. This had almost hurt me. Not quite, but almost. And watching the Werners and my mother and Celia bear the pain like a terrible fever with no relief was exhausting in itself. If I’d ever thought my impassivity was a curse, I didn’t now. It was my blessing.
Accepting this didn’t change anything—didn’t change me—but perhaps it propelled my interest in studying the human psyche. It gave me a mission. Because in learning why others behaved the way they did, I discovered more of my own strength.
“Hudson.” Celia’s small voice drew me from my reverie. “Teach me, Hudson.”
I raised a questioning brow.
“Experiment with me.”
“What? Why would you want me to…?” I didn’t know how to react to the insane request. “I’m not experimenting on people I know anymore.”
“Not on me. With me.” She sat straight up. “I want to learn how you do it. Teach me.”
Understanding her real intent didn’t make the request any less strange. “No. That’s absurd.”
“No.” But now she’d planted the thought, and I couldn’t help but explore it. “Why?”
“Because I want to be like that.”